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Whether it's short or long, deer season is about traditions

This will be a short deer season for Tanner Johnson of Duluth. The 19-year-old will be up at his family's deer camp near Comstock Lake tonight, the same place he's been every deer season for the past nine years.

Early Saturday, when Minnesota's firearms deer season opens, he'll be on his stand. But by that night, his deer season will be over.

Tanner is shipping out for Lackland Air Force Base in Texas on Monday for basic training. Johnson has enlisted and will serve four years in the Air Force. His family will hold a send-off party for him Sunday -- at home.

Johnson is looking forward to basic training, but he admits it's cramping his deer hunt.

"It sucks," Johnson said, "but hopefully I'll fill my tag."

That's what 450,000 other Minnesota deer hunters will be hoping to do during Minnesota's 16-day firearms season. The season ends Nov. 20 in Northeastern Minnesota.

Johnson was among many other deer hunters checking the racks at Gander Mountain in Duluth on Thursday before they venture into the woods looking for different kinds of racks on Saturday.

George Kovich, 78, of Duluth was about eight deep in a checkout line Thursday, waiting to buy his deer license. The Duluth man, who says he's chief cook at his deer camp north of Two Harbors, shot his first deer at age 12.

"My dad never hunted," Kovich said. "But the guy I call my second dad took me out. I had a 12-gauge shotgun with slugs."

But the hunt is about far more than shooting deer, Kovich said.

"I think it's more about the camaraderie with people, the cooking and the baloney that goes on," Kovich said.

Hunters cruised the aisles at Gander Mountain carrying doe-in-estrus scent, headlamps, folding camp chairs, scope mounts, blaze-orange hunting coats, handwarmers, fleece neck gaiters, shells and grunt calls.

Jeri Parrott, 34, of Saginaw was checking out hunting coats for her husband and her kids, ages 12, 10 and 9. The older kids will hunt this fall.

"It's a family tradition," Parrott said. "My parents have done it. Our kids do it. It's all fun."

Several hunters stood in line to buy deer licenses Thursday at Gander Mountain. Clerk LeeAnn Anderson said Thursday was slower for license sales than Wednesday.

"Yesterday (Wednesday), we sold about 500," Anderson said. "Tomorrow (Friday) ought to be chaotic."

About 450,000 firearms hunters are expected to go afield statewide. They'll find a deer herd at or near population goals across most of Northeastern Minnesota, although last winter probably hurt the population north of the Iron Range, Department of Natural Resources officials say.

Most hunters stopping at Gander Mountain are well-prepared for the season, said Gander's Bob Hanson. But some come with a sense of urgency.

"Some finally sighted in their rifles last weekend, and it wasn't shooting right," Hanson said. "They want to know if they can get it fixed in two days."

Ammunition sales have been brisk, Hanson said, even better than last year.

"Is that because there are more deer out there, or more permits?" Hanson asked rhetorically.

He wasn't sure of the answer.

Justin Johnson, 24, and Elan Mumme, 32, both of Tower, were in the process of filling a shopping cart with hunting gear. They'll hunt near Tower, they said.

They'll probably grab a couple of friends and make some pushes through the woods.

"We usually just walk," Mumme said. "We've got a couple good spots that are good for that, where they can't get away."

The hunters hope to get plenty of venison.

"We'll hunt until we don't have any more tags," Johnson said.

But Tanner Johnson, in his one-day hunting season, won't have that luxury. His dad, Kyle Johnson, 41, said he and his wife, Stacy, support Tanner's decision to join the Air Force.

Kyle, shopping with Tanner on Thursday, served on active duty with the Air Force from 1988-92 and has been a member of the 148th Fighter Wing of the Minnesota Air National Guard in Duluth since then.

Kyle Johnson has made three tours in the Middle East, returning most recently from at 6½-month tour in Afghanistan in June.

"My wife and I are very proud of Tanner," Kyle said. "We're pretty sure he's making the right decision. We told him to take the summer off, enjoy his friends. We have a camper. We got out camping as a family. He's got the rest of his life to work."

And Saturday, he'll have all day to shoot a buck.